Is there a way to keep struggling online students from logging off for good?


Erik Ketcherside

Between 2001 and 2011, ASU’s freshman retention rate improved from 80 to 84 percent. Increases in subsequent years brought ASU’s one-year retention rate to nearly 87 percent, and the overall graduation rate to 67 percent; both well above the national medians of 68 and 42, and besting the University of Arizona (81 and 61 percent), Northern Arizona University (74, 52) and Grand Canyon University (65, 31), according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Mark Wiederspan believes one factor in ASU’s retention improvement is UNI 220. Wiederspan is an assistant professor at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, and UNI 220 is “Mindset Connections.” Since 2012–13, this one-credit course has been required for all ASU on-campus undergraduates placed on academic probation as a result of their GPA dropping below 2.00 at the end of a fall or spring semester.

A commitment to student success

The UNI 220 requirement was born out of the portion of the ASU charter that calls for the university to be “... measured not by whom it excludes, but by whom it includes and how they succeed,” and the university’s goal of increasing freshman persistence to 90 percent. UNI 220 was so successful, so quickly that it was the subject of an award-winning paper (now available as a webinar) presented at the National Symposium on Student Retention only three years later.

“Probationary students nationally have extremely low retentions rates,” the paper’s abstract reads. “These students are often resistant, lacking focus, and facing emotional challenges that make retention efforts particularly difficult. … This paper discusses the extremely positive data Arizona State University has collected … and the proven techniques for overcoming the challenges of working with probationary students.”

Wiederspan, who teaches courses in higher education, says UNI 220 stands out among other institutions. “Most of the interventions for college students happen at the front end, like first-year seminar courses,” he says, “so it was intriguing to me that there hadn't been a lot of research that looked at these academic refresher courses at four-year colleges.”

And out of his intrigue came realization, Wiederspan says. ASU, with one of the most highly rated online degree programs in the nation, doesn’t require UNI 220 when online students are placed on probation. Perhaps as a result, one-year retention for full-time ASU Online students remains at around 70 percent. That’s relatively high among peer institutions, but troubling to Wiederspan, who has watched retention for ASU’s campus-based students climb.

Improving retention through research

Beginning last year, Wiederspan partnered with another MLFTC researcher, Assistant Professor Jeongeun Kim, for “Examining Online Performance and Engagement for Students on Academic Probation.” The research project is funded through a partnership between EdPlus, ASU’s unit for designing and improving digital teaching and learning; and the MLFTC office of the assistant dean of online learning and Office of Scholarship and Innovation.

Their research question is timely. In 2015 there were 6 million online learners in the U.S., a 4 percent increase over 2014. And between fall 2013 and fall 2015, undergraduate enrollment in ASU Online nearly doubled, from 8,227 to 16,220. Their question takes on even more importance in light of ASU’s goal to increase online and distance education enrollment to 100,000 by 2025. If online retention doesn’t improve, that would result in 30,000 students who start, and don’t finish, an ASU degree.

Wiederspan says there are two phases to the project. “Phase one, which we’re wrapping up now, is evaluating how online students respond to being placed on academic probation.” UNI 220 is already available as an online course for online students, he notes, but is not a requirement of academic probation, as the face-to-face class is for on-campus students.

Jeongeun Kim and Mark Wiederspan explain UNI 220

The second phase of the study, which will be completed this summer, is an evaluation of the in-person version of UNI 220. Wiederspan says, “We sent a survey to UNI 220 students, and to some random students not in UNI 220, so we can compare how students manage their time, and how they perceive academic success with and without UNI 220.” He says preliminary analysis of those surveys shows positive results for particular groups of students, such as minority students, “... but we need to dig deeper into that,” he says.

Discouragement is not a given 

Wiederspan says their preliminary findings also support what he and Kim suspected regarding how online students respond to being placed on academic probation. “No surprise,” he says. “When students go on academic probation, they are more likely to leave college.” But he adds, for online students who are on probation and continue to enroll, “... they show improvement in their grade performance. They are making some sort of effort to be in good academic standing.”

That improvement is apparently not due to what Wiederspan calls strategic course taking — enrolling in easier courses in order to bring up their GPA. Rather, he says, “Some of the students who improve their grades are taking a lighter course load, and that seems to be helping them with their course management.

“We’ve found that these online probationary students are actually still maintaining course credits within their own program of study,” he says. “We think the reason for that — a lighter course load that allows for improvement within their program — is due to academic advisors. We’re noticing that the academic advisors are really having a positive influence on some of these probationary online students.”

Wiederspan admits that, for the purposes of the study, “There’s good and bad with that result. It’s good that students are improving their grades once they’re on probation. But we can't disentangle whether students are improving their grades because of increased effort or because of a policy that requires them to meet with an academic advisor who helps them develop an academic plan. We think it probably has more to do with the advisors than effort,” Wiederspan says, “but that’s something we’re going to look at in the next phase.”

Wiederspan says the nature of ASU Online courses make them an ideal data source for this study. “With face-to-face courses, you can only measure what students are learning,” he says. “Faculty members don’t all follow the same parameters in their teaching, so you can’t measure classroom engagement.” He says Blackboard, ASU Online’s course platform, provides data he and Kim are using to quantify engagement, "to know if students on probation are visiting Blackboard more often to access the course material and participate in online discussions.

Potential outcomes

“What I’m hoping Jeongeun and I can do is figure out ways we can help improve UNI 220,” Wiederspan says. “Ultimately, what I’d really like to see is UNI 220 required for online probationary students. That's going to depend on our results, but I think it's very possible.”

If their study gives credit to UNI 220 for improving student performance and retention, Wiederspan says its value could extend beyond ASU. “What I hope to see out of this is that the UNI 220 program becomes something that can be implemented by institutions nationwide to help probationary students.”

The project will offer benefits within ASU as well. Meredith Toth, assistant dean of online learning at MLFTC, says this partnership between EdPlus and the college is a first step in continued engagement between these two units. “This is synergistic in the best possible way,” Toth says. “It allows our faculty to bring their expertise in teaching and learning to the kinds of large-scale data EdPlus has access to, in order to better understand and serve all students at ASU, including those online.”

Punya Mishra, MLFTC associate dean of scholarship and innovation, says, “I’m certain this partnership will be the foundation of future collaborations for our college — with EdPlus and other units throughout ASU’s campuses.”